Comment on Cohen's Honderich piece in the New Statesman, 20 November 2006

Cohen teases Honderich about his consequentialism, but someone who presumes himself competent to do this ought to have a better grasp of cause and effect. Wars breed hatred. First Zionists and Palestinians , then Israelis and Palestinians, have been at war for a long time - not because the Palestinians tried to rule over anyone in Europe or North America, but because Western Zionists came to Palestine, with the intention of creating a state which would impose Jewish ethnic sovereignty on everyone within its borders. Islamism, it is true, pre-dates this conflict, and has causes other than this conflict. But the current wave of Islamism in the Arab world, and the anti-Zionist character of the Iranian Islamic movement, are recent. They come not only after the establishment of Israel but, significantly, after the occupation and after the start of the settlement movement. So while Zionism cannot be 'blamed' for Islamism, it can, unsurprisingly, be blamed for the virulently anti-Zionist character of that movement.

It is true that some Islamists are anti-semitic, blaming the Jews for Israel. In this they follow the lead of Israel itself, which unceasingly portrays itself, with outrageous impudence, as representing the entire Jewish people. Like Israel, Cohen firmly adheres to this sleazy strategy.(*) He consistently declines to distinguish between attacks on Israel and on Jews, hostility against Israel and Jews, blaming Israel and blaming Jews. Cohen is not an anti-semite only because he does not condemn the actions of Israel or its founders. But in attributing these actions to Jews generally, as if Jewish babies had by their very birth authorized all Zionist activities, his claims are indistinguishable from those of antisemites.

It is true that you can cherry-pick among the utterances of millions of Islamists and find claims about a Jewish conspiracy. Cohen suggests that such claims indicate Nazi sympathies. But for every one of these claims, you can find a thousand which identify Israeli policies and tactics with those of the Nazis. I take it such claims do not indicate Nazi sympathies. Many of the entries in the Iranian 'holocaust cartoon' contest portray Israelis as Nazi murderers: this hardly expresses approval of Nazism and, far from denying 'The Holocaust', affirms it.

And does the Islamist idea of a Jewish conspiracy come only from anti-semitic screeds? Israel and its Zionist supporters proudly and mendaciously proclaim unceasing, overwhelming, world-wide Jewish support for Israel, and celebrate the activities of numerous self-proclaimed 'pro-Israel' or 'Jewish' lobby groups. It takes only a disposition to hyperbole to read into these boasts the proclamation of something quite like a 'conspiracy' - not of 'the Jews', but of those who claim and presume to speak for them.

Cohen likes accusing Islamists of fascist tendencies. What's not to like? Fascism is and was so protean, so hard to capture and define, that it makes for a wonderful smear. Hannah Arendt, who might be thought an expert on the subject, did not hesitate to call Menachim Begin's Irgun movement fascist, repeatedly, in a letter to the New York Times in 1948. (Alfred Einstein and others were co-signers.) This did not stop Begin from becoming prime minister of Israel. In Israel, which is not as swamped by nauseating piety as North America and the UK, it is very common to identify various Israeli policies and actions with fascism. These are tricky matters, but fascism was on the whole hostile to religion, and did not oppress women. Islamists, on the other hand, have never advocated ethnic sovereignty of any kind, nor engaged in fascist bestiality on anything like the scale of the West which is, after all, the home and heartland of fascist movements. Of course it may be unfair to attribute fascist crimes to the West, but such punctiliousness seems inappropriate in a discussion where all Islamists are tarred with the same brush. And it is not too much of a stretch to hold the West and Christian civilization responsible for what it has spawned.

Cohen, on the other hand, gives the game away when he lumps the Ba'ath movement with Iranian fundamentalism and Al Qaeda. The Ba'ath were Muslims, but also secularist Arab socialists - this from a man feigning surprise that Honderich would accuse him of lumping together Muslims and fundamentalists. And it is curious that Cohen, when scouring the Middle East for fascists, overlooks the Christian Falangists of Lebanon, explicitly modelled on the fascist parties of Europe. Curious too that Cohen, so shocked anyone would even think he lumped Muslims and Islamists together, lumps together Iraq's Muslim 'insurgents' - all of them - with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Cohen frequently speaks as if Honderich is just in favour or all Islamist terrorism, period, perhaps for the sheer joy of it. However what is really at issue is Palestinian terrorism. This antedates contemporary Islamism, and many of its perpetrators are not Islamists. Palestinian terrorism, unlike the terrorism of Al Qaeda and others, is quite obviously a response to dispossession, bloody repression, and the (very successful) attempt to impose ethnically Jewish sovereignty on anyone who dares to have a life within Israel's military control. To identify this response with terrorism by Islamists elsewhere or in any other context is, well, just the sort of sliminess one expects of Israel's apologists.

Finally, and until the West cures its addiction to air power, it is high time we shut up about 'terror' altogether. Recently I argued, at a conference packed with Israeli philosophers, that there was no discernable moral difference between the use of air power in modern counterinsurgency warfare - a practice fully expected to result in the death of innocent civilians - and terrorism. I ended up regretting I had devoted so much time to my argument, not because there was shock and horror, but because there was not a single dissenting voice - indeed one Israeli philosopher presented a paper saying much the same thing. Some Israelis, at least, seem to tire of hypocrisy a bit before we do. So no, we should not 'blame' Islamic fundamentalists for terrorism. We should note that they employ it, that, like us, they kill innocents to promote their political objectives. To condemn this choice is to make fools of ourselves.


*For example, his comment before quoting Honderich: 'Al-Qaeda isn't the fault of poverty, it turns out. It's the fault of the Jews. "With respect to 9/11, its prime necessary connection is neo-Zionism. Not the establishment of Israel but the expansion of Israel into the last fifth of historic Palestine and I stick to that absolutely."' To state the obvious, Honderich never said anything about 'the Jews'